Been thinking about writing.

What a surprise.

Harlan Ellison is on record as saying that not everyone should write. That not everyone can write. That, in point of fact, those people who want to write should be actively and even aggressively discouraged from doing so. They should be shut down. They should be shot down. He’s done this, apocryphally, on more than one occasion. Last I checked, his rationale was that, if someone truly wants to write, they won’t give him any due whatsoever. In brief, it’s a test. Believe what he says about you, your writing, your desire to write, set the pen down and walk away, you’ve failed; say “nuts to you, Mister Ellison, sir,” and you’re a step closer to becoming a writer.

I’ve said before that I think writing is an illness, not a profession. The world of difference between the writer who is up at the crack of dawn, putting down words until their eyes have gone teary and their vision has blurred, and the person who writes “when they feel like it” is enormous. It’s the difference between a professional and a diletante. It’s the difference between doing it because you have no alternative, and doing it as a hobby. This distinction has no immediate reflection on the merit of said writing, mind; I’m more than willing to accept that the hobbyest will occasionally knock one out of the park. I just cannot accept that the same hobbyest is likely to hit the metaphoric ball consistently.

I also believe that writing cannot be taught, per se. The nature of the craft is so intensely individual that what works for one may not, perhaps even cannot, work for another. But more, the nature of the craft is tied directly to the crafter; I write the way I write, the stories that I want to tell, the way I want to tell them. The exact same stories, with the same beginning, middle, and ending, in the hands of (using comic writers, here) a Gail Simone or a Mark Waid or a Kelly Sue DeConnick become, by necessity, different animals. Who we are as people is different, thus our view of the world is different, thus our stories, inherently, are different, even if they are ostensibly, apparently, the same.

Writing cannot be taught, perhaps. But it can be learned. It can be learned through reading and thinking and doing. I cannot read your work and tell you “do this, do that, do the other,” and make you a writer. I can, at best, read and try to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve, and judge its success or failure in my own eyes. I can tell you where I feel you stepped wrong, I can suggest ways to correct the perceived error. I can tell you what isn’t working, and why I think that is the case. I can offer to you those writers I hold in high esteem, and sometimes point to their expertise, their tools, their techniques, offering them as examples to emulate. I can offer my own tips and tricks and advice and experience, but in the end, that is never enough, because you have to do the writing yourself, and writing is perhaps the most intensely isolating, solitary artistic endeavor of our species. You are, ultimately, on your own.

And what I cannot do, ever, is tell you the story you should write. All other advice given, all other suggestions made, you are the person to tell your story, and it is not my place nor right to attempt to make that my own. The story is yours. Your voice, your vision, your passion, your drive. I may hate that story you want to write, but that’s not the point. I may think it’s worthless and pointless and even stupid, but it’s yours. Uniquely yours. Properly yours.

(As an aside – it can be far harder to discern the story you’re trying to tell than you might think. More than once, I’ve written something only to finish it and then, seeing the whole, come to understand what exactly it was I was trying to write about. This is why we revise. This is why we have drafts. This is why we rewrite. This is why no story is finished, only abandoned.)

So, I’ve been thinking about writing. And I’ve concluded – all things being equal, presuming the same command of the language, the same indefinable need to tell a story, the same passion – that there are (roughly) five traits I look for when looking for good writing, writing of quality, writing of merit.

In no particular order, these are: Honesty, Courage, Discipline, Commitment, and Passion.

Seems to me those are five perfectly fine topics for upcoming Dispatches, so that’s my plan for the next couple weeks, taking us into the start of Chapter Two.

Next up, Honesty.

Hold fast, and enjoy your long weekend, if indeed a long weekend is what you have in store!